For the first month of quarter one, I saw approximately 50% of my English 8 students. No joke. I’d take attendance and hit an equal number of Absent as I did Present into Myed. After putting my heart and soul into planning a quarter and being stoked to be back in the classroom face to face, I was beyond disappointed to find myself slogged by what felt like a never ending cycle of teach, prep, assess, and then post or create homework packages. I felt deflated. This wasn’t what I had hoped for nor desired.
This is popcorn attendance: sporadic attendance between one and five days in length, mostly precautionary (felt like crap in the morning, but was better by the afternoon) but sometimes because of a cold that they would normally tough out amongst their peers, students stayed home following the health guidelines.
No criticism of the protocols from this teacher. No sirree. I don’t want sick kids in my classroom. I can’t afford to get sick neither. Unfortunately, popcorn attendance made gathering evidence of learning hard, really hard. I had big plans for big projects, engaging projects, meaningful projects, exciting projects. But if students weren’t in the room and they didn’t have the support at home, some of these projects didn’t get done and no evidence of learning was provided.
There’s the rub. Long term, fantastic projects that are created using backwards design (Woot woot for backwards design) to gather evidence for a competency were a wholly unsuccessful means of gathering data when popcorn attendance was rampant.
I’m not talking about any assessment. I’m talking about authentic assessment. Assessment that truly tells stakeholders what was learned by the student. Because of popcorn attendance, longer projects were often partially completed. Partially completed is not the same as partially learned. Not by a long shot. Even when I used observations and conversations (triangulation assessment), students got part way through a skill and seemed ready to make a leap into a new level but when they got hit by a cold or flu, remained stuck in the level where they left off. Assessing a student at Developing for a skill, for example, felt akin to suggesting a student who only had time to write half a test only knew half the material. It was preposterous! They needed to finish the project, or at least be present for me to observe their ability to show me what they learned to make a valid evaluation of a curricular competency. They needed more time to show their learning. But with only nine weeks with students, there simple wasn’t more time. As a result, for a few students, my gradebook showcased the word no gradebook should behold…EMERGING – INSUFFICIENT EVIDENCE. Sigh.
For the record, I set out, back in September, not to double down on or double up on lessons just because we had double the time per day over half the number of weeks. No way. Kids aren’t robots with the capacity to absorb an entire course, and sticking it to them because I have a binder of curriculum that I have to get through was not the way to create engagement and still be mindful of their social-emotional turmoil in these pandemic times. I set out with a comprehensive agenda to assess just five competencies (one of which was a combination of three, plus four more; there are twenty in total in BCed). The number of competencies was fine, but my agenda was complex. Ambitious. Too ambitious. Student notebooks became a chaotic mess. Like Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle preach in 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents, “plan to change your plans.” It’s easy to think you have the best plan and it’s hard to start over, but I did. I had to. When the wheels fell of the track and I realized that student might fail the course because of lack of evidence, I had to do an about-face.
One of the things I preach to my student writers and actors is that learning is messy business, but it’s how we respond to feedback and reflection that matters. So, I took a mulligan, and made some big, bold changes in my English class right in the middle of the quarter. I wasn’t about to wait until the end of the quarter to overhaul the course for quarter two. I was inspired to make those changes right then in there thanks in part to reflecting on what was working in Drama 10.
In my Drama class, the system I established was actually working pretty well. The thing with Drama is, and other Drama teachers concur, lapping the standards is a natural part of the course, and I never approach the course with one standard, one learning opportunity, and done thinking. Performance skills (one of the competencies), for example, is the heart of the Drama program. Well placed opportunities to show this skill means that even by interim time (half-way) in a quarter system, I had multiple pieces of evidence to choose from for each curricular competency.
The feedback-assessment loop is a phenomenal opportunity not just for gathering of evidence but to teach kids that failure and mistake-making is not only opportunities for growth but encouragement to get better at the skill. Additionally, a student who missed short and long periods of time in class, still had sufficient evidence to pass the course, better than pass the course actually. One of my Drama 10 students missed the final four weeks of the course and I still had 2-3 learning opportunities to tap from to evaluate all five competences. While I admit that this is not ideal (I would have loved to see what that student could have done in the final four weeks), because the purpose of the feedback-assessment loop is to keep getting better, one takes what one gets and this student still showed growth from week one of the course to week six. It was better than approaching each competency as a one hit wonder – this is your only opportunity so if you miss it, sucks to be you. That is not in the best interest of students who cannot control when illness, tragedy, anxiety, and weather prevents them from attending school.
So I thought to myself, how could I use the same technique from Drama 10 in English 8? And how is this possible in nine weeks?
I did so by organizing the day through the lens of the curricular competencies and trying to hit most of them every single day. I think this is something that can be modelled in all classes — a competency-based daily agenda.
In each of these five competencies, I have provided a minimum of three learning opportunities all with the same goal. If a student misses a learning opportunity, there are other opportunities to show their skill. Again, this was set up assuming a student may not be able to provide evidence for the learning opportunity. Additionally, varying the learning opportunities gives all students whether they are present or not to show their learning in a variety of ways, allowing me and them to showcase their talents in their best way. As Bill Ferriter pointed out on the Tom Schimmer Podcast this week, we should focus on providing fewer high quality assignments because we “don’t need 18 assignments in order to assess mastery.”
Further, by giving multiple learning opportunities, I’m trying to make the learning playing field inclusive, equitable and achievable for every single student. By assessing with a student’s best evidence of learning in mind, for example, and not averaging scores, the table is not tilted towards those student who have home support and access to technology to complete missed work. It also gives students who are engaged in extracurricular activities outside of the class day, to continue to participate in these activities without feeling the pressure to complete all missed work due to absence (illness, travelling, etc.). I’m not going to give out a zero for work not completed, I’m going to find novel ways to make sure my students have opportunities to use feedback and grow. Missing one or two learning opportunities and playing catchup can have disastrous effects on student’s ego and can pull them into a vicious cycle of fall behind-catch up-fall behind again. It’s a system that does not work for kids nor teachers.
Additionally, developing a daily agenda that hits all the competencies is a fantastic way to keep students engaged and motivated over these very long classes. Teenagers, in particular middle schoolers, have a hard time sitting still for one activity for a long stretch of time. Working on one competency for a maximum of about 30 minutes is a great way to add variety to the learning block, keep students actively engaged, and provide a routine. As our classrooms become increasingly complex with diverse learners, routines and variety are integral.
I feel like a broken record, but it’s worth repeating. The content is important, but the competencies should be the start of any planning. Imagine letting go of the burden of trying to get through all the content. It’s an amazing feeling! There are still those who feel that content is king and getting through all the content is necessary. Here’s the rub. Teachers can attempt, with due diligence, to get through the content, but it won’t stick without learning opportunities that make the content meaningful. Let me phrase that another way. It is through a variety of repetitive, deep and rich learning opportunities (projects, assignments) in which students have a voice in how they show their learning that students will retain both the skill and the content. Period. Teachers get trapped in a cyclone of frustration when kids don’t “remember” what was learned the year before. Connect the learning to place, to family, to life skills, to current events, to memories, and to real world, practical activities.
It’s through the curricular competencies that the content gets to shine. This is opposite to how traditional teachers approach the curriculum: focus on content and then figure out how it fits the competencies. Forwards design doesn’t work in the 21st century when it’s through the skills of critical and creative thinking that students will be better equipped to challenge conventional job opportunities and create their own jobs.
I think, then, the way to support students successfully and empathetically, expecting popcorn attendance, is to be sure that when we plan our quarters that we dial down on the amount of content we expect students to learn, reduce the number of curricular competencies to be assessing, and make sure we provide multiple, engaging and meaningful learning opportunities for each curricular competency. Keep the week-long projects, but be sure to provide additional kicks at the same can. That way, we eliminate the need to hammer kids with what they missed, and students have not just the opportunity but the class time to use the feedback given to them. In other words, drop the a week per competency, which has good, logical, linear intentions, but doesn’t work when there is popcorn attendance in a pandemic. Kids are hardwired to learn in difficult times. They deserve every opportunity to grow as learners and be credited for what they can do, not dinged for what they missed.
Meeting students’ needs is built on a foundation of ethics and understanding. They deserve every opportunity to show what they can do and the time to grow as learners. I understand first hand that teachers have never felt more anxious and overwhelmed as they have in 2020. We’re already spread so thin. I am so proud to work alongside teachers, virtually and literally, who are rising up to meet the needs of students in these uncertain times. It’s not comprising our principles to meet students where they are at and reflect and change our practices to meet their needs, it’s showing our true colours as ambitious, reflective and adventurous educators. It’s best practice and kids are worth it.